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River of Darkness by Rennie Airth


A Dark River of Mystery

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth is sub-titled A John Madden Mystery Set in England in the Aftermath of WWI.

An apt description for the novel, the first in a series of three. I read the second some months ago and the first more recently. A full day at the cottage with a good book is a wonderful thing, I didn’t even mind that it rained most of the day that I was immersed in River of Darkness. It is an excellent mystery novel – good writing, good characters and psychological insight, a great book to spend the day with.

John Madden has returned to Scotland Yard after serving in France during WWI. He had planned to leave the police force just before the war began, he’d had a desire to live in the country with his young family. But the death of his wife and baby daughter to influenza, and the war brought and end to life as he knew it. Surviving the war and returning from Europe after two years in the trenches he found himself taking up his old career as an Inspector with Scotland Yard.

The story begins with the murder of a family at Melling Lodge – the owners and the housemaids slaughtered – one child was away from home, the other cowered, hidden under a bed, traumatized. The house had been robbed but Madden believes it is a purposeful murder and the robbery is an effort to disguise that fact.

Madden meets Dr. Helen Blackwell who is treating the traumatized child, she is a long time friend of the murdered family. Dr. Blackwell is an independent, intelligent and forceful woman, unintimidated by Scotland Yard. She captures the admiration, and then the heart, of John Madden. Dr. Blackwell’s two brothers and her young husband were killed in the war, like Inspector Madden she has experienced grief. Madden has lived with his emotions suppressed, it will be Helen Blackwell’s determination to live life to it’s fullest, in spite of past losses, that will open his heart to the world around him.

It is determined that the weapon used in the initial murders is a standard issue British military bayonet – and the method used one that was taught by the army – a short stabbing thrust by a bayonet fixed to a rifle. Madden is convinced from the beginning that the murderer is someone who fought in the war – but who is he, where is he, and why has he murdered this family?

Madden finds himself at odds with some of his superiors at the Yard, but another says “hard work will get you only so far. There comes a moment when you have to be able to see through the facts, the mass of them that collect, to find what’s important, what’s significant. Madden has that gift.”

Madden is puzzled by one aspect of this murder – the body of a woman was laid out on the bed as if she was assaulted – but was not. In an effort to understand the sort of man who might have committed these murders, Madden consults Dr. Weiss, who is in England on a lecture tour. These are the early days of Freudian psychology. Dr. Weiss believes “sexual instinct flows like a river through our live, for many it is a broad sunlit stream, for others a source of pain and anguish – a river of darkness.”

There are many twists and turns in this river as Madden works his way toward the solution of this case and the conclusion of this novel. A mystery novel that is satisfying in every way.

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